The Big Chill could be closer than we think. Research conducted by scientists at the US Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has found a dramatic change in the circulation of the waters of the North Atlantic which could 'turn off' the Gulf Stream and catapult Europe into an Ice Age. The shift, cited by Woods Hole as being 'the largest and most dramatic oceanic change ever measured in the era of modern instruments,' could eliminate the Gulf Stream in as little as two or three years. Although northern Europe is at the same latitude as cold spots like Labrador, the region experiences a mild climate because the Gulf Stream brings in warm air from the tropics. More specifically, the Atlantic Ocean's cold, salty water sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor and flows into the Pacific, which then forces warm water from the Pacific to flow up toward the coast of Europe, bringing moderate weather with it.
Unfortunately, global warming is shifting the fragile balances of cold, and warm water, putting us in danger of what Britain's Independent calls a 'nightmare scenario where farmland turns to tundra and winter temperatures drop below -20C.' A moderate scenario would involve a 'little ice age' like the one that hit Europe in 1400 and caused harsh winters, desertification, and drought. Previously, scientists believed that climate change took place over long stretches of time. However, the new research indicates not only that change can happen as rapidly as within a few years, but that this change can be triggered like a light switch.
Unfortunately, this switch is not easy to flip the other way, and the climate shift could cause harsh weather for decades -- or centuries. One would hope that the threat of a permanent change in the climate -- a long-lasting winter -- would cause the Bush administration to call for a war on global warming on the scale of its war on terror. Sadly, while oil execs and automakers are filling his campaign war chest, prospects for that bold move remain chilly. -- Erica Wetter
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